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Sunday, June 08, 2014

Booth Tarkington's The Turmoil (1915): A Mini-Lecture

Booth Tarkington’s novel, The Turmoil (1915), negotiates the psychological minefield of rapid industrialization / technological shifts / structural social change due to new innovation and rapid growth. While it was written almost 100 years ago, the disruptive technologies and their impact on social structure and individual psychology hold true today. The Turmoil is first of the Growth Trilogy, which was launched by The Turmoil,  and then followed by widely-known (thanks to Orson Welles's film version) The Magnificent Ambersons and finally concluded with The Midlander. 

The Turmoil was published in 1915, and written before the Great War had broken out. There is not much concern in the Midwestern industrial town for the goings-on in Europe, and you do not feel the threat of anarchists or Bolshevik anti-aristocratic rage, except in the sense that fortunes of the past are ephemeral, and the families that considered themselves to be the local gentry, even aristocrats, traced their success back five decades or so, not five centuries. The Turmoil has a resolutely American feel, and it immediately connects to the American reader who would instantly recognize people and places in his or her own experience, and forces that have acted upon one’s own community, family, and sense of identity and/or self. 

Booth Tarkington's The Turmoil (1915)
It may first appear that The Turmoil is either a simple homage to pluck and American values of individualism, as the ultimate heroes are more free-thinkers than simple cult followers, or, a critique of nature-despoiling aspects industrialization. However, Turmoil is not so easily classified along such dualistic lines. Instead, The Turmoil explores the space between the two extremes. In fact, the novel never actually inhabits the space representing one extreme or the other, but in reality undermines its own potential as an epic encomium on of human ingenuity to result in growth, jobs, prosperity, or a cautionary parable that seeks to incite social reform.

In The Turmoil, “Bigness” is the new god, but what does “Bigness” do? It is an obvious driver of change, and consumer. It despoils, and yet “bigness” creates a structure. It is the framework of change and turmoil. Bigness forces a closer look, and an emphasis on subtle, small behaviors that flow together like streams into a river. “Bigness” could be viewed as pure thanatos drive.

It is worth mentioning that Tarkington, like many of the writers in the late 19th century and early 20th century, were quite taken with Schopenhauer. In fact, the entire existential tragedy that informs the world of The Turmoil reminds one of Schopenhauer in Essays on Pessimism and also Parerga and Paralipomena (Appendices and Omissions) (1851) the vanity of existence “in the interdependence and relativity of all things; in continual Becoming without ever Being” (Schopenhauer, paragraph 1).

Later, the turmoil that the characters in Tarkington’s novel experience also echoes Schopenhauer: “In a world where all is unstable, and nought can endure, but is swept onwards at once in the hurrying whirlpool of change” (Schopenhauer). Needless to say, Schopenhauer’s “whirlpool of change” is much like the “turmoil” described by Tarkington. 

Also “Bigness” is an illustration of precisely the desire for Being, but is in a nexus / netherworld where the “continual Becoming” never achieves Being or Beingness. It’s a bleak world: “happiness is inconceivable. How can it dwell there, as Plato says, continual Becoming and never Being is the sole form of existence?” (Schopenhauer, 1851).

The novel concerns itself with industrialization, and ultimately reveals a humanistic technocracy. The novel locates itself on edges and margins – the edge of the penitentiary (the Sheridans early in his career), the edge of hunger and degradation (the Vertrees family).

As a humanistic technocracy, machines are sometimes anthropomorphosed but always traversing the territory between humanizing and dehumanizing. Are cars or people  the master or mastered?

The Turmoil is in no way an apology for industrialization and economic growth; and yet, it stops short of advocating unions or social reform. It is, however a multi-faceted critique of

a) investment based on “me, too” greed without any real contributions

b) pollution as environmentally irresponsible growth and industrialization

c) nihilistic growth (a certain frisson upon embracing nihilism) eradicates the accomplishments of the past / cuts away scaffolding

d) unethical growth (stealing intellectual property, etc.)

Lessons learned? You can’t “opt out” without serious consequences. If you think you can, simply look at Young  Bibbs … 

Question: Is there room for art in the world of The Turmoil?

We can say that there is not – not at least for the kind that changes to old patrician notions … after all, the patricians get their “come-uppances” pretty resolutely … crushed / buried / appropriated – slapped onto the wall of a mansion or plaster caricature of a cast bronze or iron statue – what is this about, anyway?

But we can say “yes” – at least for the kind that turns the tables on values, and embraces “the art of noise” and harnesses / subjugates the classics into the service of a framework that is, at first confused with plebian, but turns out to be technocratic –

And it has, as its primum mobile, the need to reconstruct the Great Chain of Being, so that divine is not a noumenous spirit, but one that resembles a machine – in other words, a facsimile of human enterprise, but writ cryptic and (well) sad… this is what young Bibbs resisted …

And yet older Bibbs came to realize that love and heart could make a hybrid occur, and the hybrid was, perhaps, a dialectical resultant … and a synthesis of “old school” aristocracy and the hyper-new…

In other words, World War I was never necessary, if only love had blazed a way (love, meaning unity) …

This is what Booth Tarkington’s message is … and it’s ultimately tragic because the understanding of the waste to come (WWI) is foreshadowed – in 1915.

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